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Stephen Ambrose’s “Upton and the Army” is a Matter-of-Fact Good Read

Upton and the Army by Stephen E. Ambrose came to us before we met the Band of Brothers or learned about Undaunted Courage.Quote from "Upton and the Army" that reads, "Men, your friends at home and your country expect every man to do his duty on this occasion. Some of us have got to die, but remember you are going to heaven."

Ambrose’s first book, Upton and the Army was published in 1963. This was before Watergate and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, assassination. And it was before the country knew it had in Ambrose one of its most talented historian-storytellers.

The book is about U.S. Army General Emory Upton’s impact on the U.S. military. An officer during the Civil War, Upton’s war experience led him to two conclusions that shaped the rest of his career.

First, he saw the role politics played in military promotions and decisions in the U.S. in the mid-19th century. Secondly, he realized the military tactics used were outdated and overmatched by advances in weaponry.

After the war, Upton focused on overhauling the U.S. military. He recommended changes that were implemented for how the military fought battles and conducted parades. But it was in the area of politics, military organization, and leadership that Upton set his sights on most.

For example, Upton advocated for a large, standing army trained to defend the United States. At the time, most of the nation’s defense fell to voluntary state militias.

Also, Upton believed professional officers make military decisions, as opposed to the Secretary of War. Upton was convinced the Civil War lasted four bloody years in large part due to the leadership of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

Stanton was a lawyer who had never served in the military. As was custom for the Secretary of War at the time, Stanton frequently made strategic military decisions throughout the war.

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After surviving and succeeding in the Civil War, you might think changing military policy would be easier. But Upton found it to be anything but simple. The general learned how difficult changing bureaucracy can be.

It’s in his struggle to modernize the American military that Ambrose tells the story of Upton and the Army.

Upton and the Army Book Review

Some authors’ first books immediately announce their talent (i.e., Stephen King’s Carrie or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus).

This is not the case with Ambrose’s Upton and the Army. It is a book that achieves its objective, to educate the reader about General Emory Upton. But readers of Ambrose’s later and more popular works will wonder where the commanding storytelling is in Upton and the Army.

The book reads more matter-of-fact than as a fact-based story. It’s more of an academic paper written by the history professor Ambrose than it is a page turning non-fiction book.

Still, Upton and the Army is illuminating. Through the book, we learn a great deal about military history, especially changes that set the U.S. up for successes in World War I and World War II.

And Ambrose is superb in his grasp of military history. In some ways, Upton and the Army’s greatest weakness, its lack of emotion, is also its greatest asset. The book lays out in digestible and compelling fashion military tactics and history.

You may not feel a grasp for any character outside of Upton, but you won’t walk away from the book without having learned.

Upton and the Army is recommended most for those interested in military history, including battlefield tactics. But even broader students of history will find the book informative and worthy of reading.

Upton and the Army Book Cover Upton and the Army
Stephen E. Ambrose
LSU Press
August 1, 1993